What's good for workers is good for us all

Kathleen Quinlan

I grew up in southeastern Michigan on a tree-lined street one mile from the General Motors Tech Center. The people of my neighborhood, like iron miners on the Iron Range, organized decades before I was born for better wages and working conditions. Miners fought hard to form the United Steel Workers. My grandfather helped form the United Auto Workers.

Nearly every adult male in my family worked directly, or indirectly, for the auto industry. Everyone felt the effects of its “economic ups and downs.” The financial impacts of strikes and lay-offs would ripple through most households. And yes, there were class disparities. If you worked for the Big Three – Chrysler, GM, or Ford – your family did better than those who did not. Members of the union had benefits and safeguards that helped keep them afloat during difficult times. But there were plenty of people who worked in non-union jobs that lacked any guaranteed supports to weather inevitable “boom and bust” cycles and their consequential rippling effects.

When I moved to northern Minnesota in the late 1970s, I was assigned to second-class status, as new arrivals often were, with the moniker, “pack sacker.” Despite this subtle rebuff from local residents, the immutable nature of the Iron Range’s labor culture felt comfortably familiar. I not only understood, I identified with the economic mood swings that periodically swept the region during the 1980s and the decades that followed. With every round of negotiations came uncertainty and dread of a potential strike.

During a recent MPR interview, a University of Minnesota labor researcher provided some interesting facts. Today, “organized labor” includes just 10% of the American workforce – down from the 1950s when nearly a third of American workers belonged to a union. We can be proud because Minnesota ranks among the highest states in the nation with union membership hovering around 17%. Studies show that the higher the number of organized workers, the higher the average wage of non-union workers. And, a stronger union presence creates a more fertile environment for success when unorganized workers attempt to form unions.

The news media has covered a number of recent success stories that indicate growing interest to form unions in companies such as Starbucks, Amazon, Chipotle’s and REI (a recreational equipment retailer), employers of typically younger, lower-paid workers. In addition, unions are also finding success among paraprofessional care providers to children, elderly and people with disabilities – an employment sector known to be grossly underpaid despite the high levels of stress and the array of skills needed to meet the physical and emotional demands of these occupations.

Under the banner of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), an impressive number of these workers serving in state-funded settings were successful in securing wage increases well above minimum wage levels to a range of $19 to $22 per hour, much closer to covering the actual costs of living in today’s economy.

Increased wages are only a part of the story. Since the passing of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act in 1914 that allowed workers the right to peacefully picket, boycott and strike for their interests, organized labor has championed other important improvements.

Take, for example, last year’s many months-long contract negotiations between the Minnesota Nurses Association and negotiators representing major hospitals. Besides addressing adjustments to their pay scales, nurses demanded attention to crisis-level staffing shortages.

The dangers due to chronically insufficient staffing increased dramatically during the COVID pandemic. Conditions became so bad that nurses were reporting unsafe conditions, not only for themselves but, of even greater concern, for their patients. The threat to strike was a last resort decision to get hospital reps back to the bargaining table to seek, in good faith, a contract that would effectively address staffing concerns. Only the right to strike, enshrined in law, could garner the attention needed to end the stalemate. Through their collective strength, the nurses prevailed. After months of “stall tactics,” hospital negotiators resumed talks, a contract was finalized, and a strike averted.

Efforts by organized labor have not only improved wage scales but also workplace standards. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the eight-hour workday, the forty-hour work week, overtime pay and child labor protections. In 1963, Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Equal Pay Act requiring men and women be paid the same wage when working the same job in the same workplace. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in workplace hiring, firing and promotion practices based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In 1970, due to high rates of workplace fatalities, Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act. These are just a few examples of landmark legislation that improved conditions for workers and their families but would never have become law without the concerted efforts of organized labor and the elected officials who allied to represent them.

Despite the decline in formal union membership in the past 30 years, organizations like the Steelworkers, Teamsters, United Farmworkers, Auto Workers, Teacher’s Unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and dozens of skilled trades and service unions have tirelessly rallied their members to push for contracts and legislation designed to improve conditions for workers. This year, we should expect to see action on Paid Family Medical Leave and measures to expand safe affordable childcare – both critically important to working families.

The MPR story included results of a recent survey that showed 77% of “educated people below 41 years of age” expressing support for unions, and a 55% increase in the past year in applications to form unions. This is good news and underpins the successes we are hearing about as younger workers become more engaged in advancing their interests. One activist employee at Starbucks explained that getting involved was her way to address the huge income gaps that currently plague our economy.

If these trends continue, we’re sure to see brighter days ahead for American workers. I’ll be standing with “labor” as they strengthen their collective voices for positive change – all the while working hard to keep the nation’s needs met and our economy humming!

Originally published in The Timberjay.